Published November 27, 2019


NORTH READING — It has been 40 years since the only post-season appearance by the Hornets in the Division 3 Super Bowl, but no one should forget that 1979 Hornet juggernaut at Boston College.

The ‘79 squad turned out to be the meat of a three-year Cape Ann League championship sandwich for the powerhouse Hornets that rolled to a 26-2-2 mark over those three seasons.

Head Coach Ed Sapienza, the architect of the late ‘70s North Reading football dynasty, came to town in 1976 and turned around a struggling football program. After a 3-6 mark in the Bicentennial year, the Hornets went 5-5 in 1977, including a watershed 30-0 thumping of Lynnfield that launched the Hornets’ championship run.

The 1978 Hornets defeated Lynnfield 21-8 on Thanksgiving Day to finish 7-1-1 and take the CAL crown, but they finished in third place in the Super Bowl ratings.

In those days, only the top two teams moved on. Sapienza certainly expected big things from the ‘79 club. He told me in a post-year interview that before the season his answer to the question of how the Hornets would do was simple. “I told them we were going to win all our games.” The enthusiastic head coach wasn’t off by much as the Hornets steamrolled through the CAL with a 9-0-1 mark, the best ever for a North Reading team and good for second place in the D3 rankings and a post-season berth.

Before the season, Sapienza lamented the losses his team suffered, specifically along the offensive and defensive fronts. “We will be thin in the line,” the coach told me. They weren’t thin for long as the defensive line of Mike Connor, Doug Barnard, Kevin Brennan, Paul Correlle and Dean Demetri and the tri-captain linebacking corps of Kevin Jones, Mark Rogers and Brian Mahoney became the strength of the team. The ferocious “D,” which I dubbed “The Green Line” allowed only 52 points in the 10 games preceding the Super Bowl and posted two shutouts.

The defense needed to play strong since the offense was spotty. Despite a strong running game led by Mahoney, Billy Warnock and Jim Tremblay, the Hornets struggled to put points on the board. Quarterbacks Bob Murdock and Paul Texiera and receiver Jones played well, but their 161 points scored were almost 80 less than the Hornets had scored in 1978. In fairness, the CAL was much stronger in ‘79, and where the ‘78 team snuck up on teams, everyone was gunning for the defending champs in ‘79.

The Hornets began the season with a non-league win over Northeast Regional, then opened their CAL season with victories over Triton and Amesbury. They squeaked by previously unbeaten North Andover, 6-0, but were outplayed the following week by unbeaten Hamilton-Wenham, escaping with a 6-6 tie.

The Hornets then traveled to Ipswich to face the division’s number one ranked Tigers. The Hornets completely stifled the vaunted Tigers’ offense in a 14-7 win, holding them to 12 yards rushing and three first downs while forcing four turnovers. Ipswich’s only score came on a flea flicker late in the game.

The following week the Hornets had to “guard against a let-down as the host league doormat Masconomet,” as I reported in the Transcript’s pregame story. They handled the Chieftains easily 25-7.

Then came the dramatic “Miracle on Park Street” against Newburyport. Trailing the Clippers 12-6 with less than a minute to play, Texiera blocked a punt and Barnard returned it for a touchdown. Marco “The Toe” Vittozzi nailed the PAT with 53 seconds left to give the Hornets a 13-12 lead. It wasn’t over yet as the Clippers marched to the NR 24 and missed a last second field goal that secured the win.

The Hornets won their second straight CAL crown the following week with a 19-6 win over Pentucket, setting the stage for the Super Bowl-clinching win over Lynnfield.

The Hornets faltered in a 28-6 loss to Canton at BC, but that in no way diminished what they had accomplished. Sapienza, ever the motivator, summed it up to me this way: “If we had gone undefeated and gone all the way to win the Super Bowl, what would there be left to do?”

What was left to do in 1980 was to win a third straight CAL title, which was almost as unexpected as the ‘78 crown. Graduation took half of the Super Bowl team but Connor, Brad Hillard and Ron Doucette returned to captain the Hornet squad to a 9-1 record, but again finished third and just out of money for a Super Bowl berth.

Other members of the ‘79 squad were Warren McNeil, Les Montford, Brad Hilliard, Jim Brosseau, Jim McCormack, Mark Texiera, Graham Clewer, Chris Berton, Ron Doucette, Mike Gallahue, Mike MacDonald, Jim Donahue, Tony Morlani, Tom Pottle, Tom Brady, Kevin Freeman, Scott Tilton, Billy Welch, Tom Gregory, John Rex, Sam Angelini, Billy Germino, Fran McNeil, Rob Selfridge, Eric Pucillo, Bill Gallant, Jason Losso, Paul Wilkes, Dan Romeo, Barry Brooks, Terry Stanfield, Chuck Russek, Dan Batchelder, Bob Phinney, Chris Martino, Joe McCormack, Peter Newbern, Jeff Hull, Mike Libertini and John Pierce.

There is no question those Hornet squads had great talent. They also had great coaching as Sapienza’s assistants were Ed Nizwantowski and Gary Sverker. “Niz” went on to coach Peabody for 23 years, winning nine GBL titles plus two Super Bowl titles in five years. Sverker went on to be head coach of the Hornets and was later the head man at Lynn Tech for 19 years until his retirement in 2010.